A star in the making

LPGA golfer wants to attend college while tearing up the tour.

After heavy rains delayed her third round by more than an hour, LPGA star Paula Creamer looked more like a skier than a golfer as she prepared to tee off.

But as she descended upon the first tee at Florida's Natural Atlanta Charity Championship in Stockbridge on Saturday, everything stopped - including the rain.

"I win," Creamer said to no one in particular. "Thank you."

The LPGA should thank Creamer. With No. 1 ranked player Annika Sorenstam now 36 years old, the LPGA needs to find its next big star soon. Discounting 17-year-old Michelle Wie, who is not a member of the LPGA yet, that player could be 19-year-old Creamer. She currently sits ninth on the LPGA's money list and has already earned more than $1 million, and she's in her just second season on the tour. But according to her father, Paul, all of that success nearly didn't happen.

Paula, like many high-school seniors, couldn't decide on her future. But for her, the decision didn't involve a choice between schools. Creamer had to decide if she wanted to go to college or join the LPGA. She waited until Aug. 30 of what would have been her freshman year of college to decide.

"It was a huge, huge decision in our family," Paul Creamer said. "She's always liked school. She likes to learn. She wanted to go to college. I wanted her to go to college even more than she wanted to go to college, and she could've gone to basically any school in America."

Paula's mother, Karen, said Oklahoma State University and Stanford University were willing to accept the talented young player if she didn't make it through the LPGA's qualifying school, which is a requirement to earn membership on the tour. But Creamer blitzed through the qualifying school and hasn't looked back since.

"We really felt that going to college and getting her education was very important," Karen Creamer said. "[Paula] felt that college was important, but you go to college to discover what you want to do. She knew what she wanted to do."

Creamer wanted to win, and she did. Watching her, it's obvious she sets high expectations for herself, and she's met most of them. She won two tournaments as a rookie and finished second four other times. The only cut she missed, ironically, was last year's tournament in Stockbridge.

"It's my only cut that I have ever missed besides the U.S. Open when I was like 13 or 14 years old," Creamer said in a pre-tournament interview with the LPGA. "But coming back here, I definitely want to play well."

Creamer looked like a player who had come a long way at this year's tournament. She easily made the cut, finishing 6-under-par through the first two days of competition. On Saturday, rain fell and her putts did not. She finished 3-over-par and missed out on final-day contention.

Her final round 67 on Sunday placed her in a tie for 20th and earned her $14,350.

But even with significant earnings in the bank and endorsement deals with Adidas, Taylor Made and others, Creamer's father said she still wants to attend college as her schedule allows. But colleges and universities across the country have not helped.

"We've talked to a lot of schools to get them to work with us where she could continue to get her degree and play the tour simultaneously," Paul Creamer said. "Most of the typical institutions don't want to talk about it."

That doesn't mean the quest for Creamer's degree is over. Her travel schedule is extensive - she's already been to Mexico, Hawaii, Arizona, California, Nevada and Georgia for tournaments this year - and she would have to miss class often, but Creamer's father said he still thinks it can happen.

"There is a way to do this," he said. "It may take seven or eight years [for Paula] to get a degree. That's OK. We have an athlete who wants to get this degree, and the academic world doesn't seem to want to work with us."

Paul Creamer did not name any specific schools but said institutions across the country have not cooperated with getting his daughter enrolled.

"We could have her go to a pure online school," he said. "That's not necessarily what we want. We want an institution that, during her off-season, she can go to some classes."

As his daughter's fame increases and her bank account grows, her desire to pursue her degree may waver.

"We just can't get them to think outside of this typical academic box," he said. "Unfortunately, what's going to happen, I think, is that the longer she's away from school, and with the success she's having, the less likely she's going to want to go back."

If Creamer did return to college, the rising star couldn't play for a school's golf program because of her professional status. But despite her desire to attend, Paula's boyfriend Tarik Can, who is a student at Augusta State University, said Creamer is learning more on the course than she would in a classroom.

"She's making millions of dollars," Can said. "I don't think she's missing that much [at college]. I can't wait to get out of college."

Some of Creamer's friends accompanied Can on Saturday. Two wore pink shorts, matching with nearly all of her accessories. Her golf bag, hat, shirt, shorts, shoes, ball marker, wristband and nails all have at least some pink. Then there's the pink teddy bear attached to her golf bag and the Pink Panther head cover.

At some level, Creamer is still 19, smiling at friends from the fairway.

"It's a whole new world when you come out here," Creamer said in a pre-tournament interview with the LPGA. "Especially since I was 18, I didn't go to college, and I had to take all of that responsibility of what you do in college."

Fans may recognize her by the omnipresent pink, but her image is more than just a flashy color.

At a tournament with little following, no television deal and unfavorable weather on Saturday, Creamer still received a boisterous ovation at the first tee and autograph requests from fans as little as eight years younger than her.

Her parents simply smiled, proud of what their daughter has become.

"When she started playing golf at 10, I was glad she showed some interest," Paul Creamer said. "It was her idea, and I'm just happy she liked the game because she could play it for the rest of her life."

The future looks bright for the 19-year-old, and if the LPGA's acclaim grows, it will likely do so because of young, affable stars like Creamer. But if her smile ever fades, Creamer's father knows the exact words to say to his daughter.

"What I constantly try to remind her is that this is a game," he said. "Have fun, enjoy it. You're blessed in that you get paid to play a game. It can't get much better than that. When you think, 'Today's Saturday, I have to work this weekend, then you're not playing for the right reasons."

But Karen Creamer said her daughter loves what she does. Paula could be preparing for finals. Instead, she's off to Orlando, Fla. for next week's tournament.

It doesn't get much better than that.